The Vercors, a little known treasure trove in southeast France

I hardly know where to begin this week, I have so many photos to share. As I mentioned at the end of my last post I had only a day and a half at home before setting off on the next adventure. This time I headed to Folkstone to meet up with my parents. I left my car on a friend’s drive and we boarded the Eurotunnel bound for the South of France.

We drove down over a couple of days and were due to meet with a Natural History tour group at Lyon. The first half of the tour would explore the Vercors region which is a Limestone massif on the edge of the Alps.

The first two days consisted mostly of motorways although we did make a couple of nice observations; a Bee Orchid in one layby, Pyramidal Orchids in another. The good stuff began on the morning before we were due to meet up with the group. We spent a happy couple of hours driving a little hillside road in the Rhone valley (exceptionally slowly as we had to keep stopping!), where we found all sorts of wonderful flowers to start the holiday off.

One of the first showstoppers was a lovely patch of Canterbury Bells (Campanula medium) which had a Violet Carpenter Bee buzzing from bell to bell.


Canterbury-Bells-(Campanula-medium), Vercors


Further along the road were all sorts of other treasures including Lizard Orchid, Bee Orchid, Pyramidal Orchid, Common Spotted Orchid, Early Purple Orchid, Common Twayblade, Wood Pink, Small Yellow Foxglove & Bath Asparagus to name a few! Another highlight were beautiful Red Helleborines (Cephalathera rubra).




There were quite a lot of butterflies flitting around in the sunshine too. We saw Dark Green Fritillaries and Meadow Browns, Ringlets and Red Admirals. There was a very obliging Small Tortoiseshell which posed beautifully on a Honeysuckle leaf.




Later in the day, having met with some of the rest of the group and been ushered on our way to our hotel while they waited for the others, we took a side road to kill a bit of time and came across some wonderful meadows. We found Peach-leaved Bellflower, Creeping Bellflower, Round-headed Rampion here as well as glorious Carthusian Pinks (Dianthus carthusianorum).




Eventually we made it to our hotel and met up with the rest of the group. The following morning the holiday proper began with a walk through the village and out into the surrounding countryside. The scenery was lovely and the flowers were pretty good too.

The previous evening we had been taunted with glimpses of a spectacular mountain called Mont Aiguille. As we rounded a corner we had our first unobstructed view and it was magnificent.




Amongst the Poppies, which were glorious in their own right, were Corncockle, Field Pennycress and Large Venus Looking-Glass. A Brown Hare made a brief appearance onto the track alongside the field and, having watched it dissolve back into the flowers, we walked up towards it and took a path along the edge of the field. Here we found Fragrant and Common Spotted Orchids, including this one which had a Conehead Cricket perched on top.




A little further on, at the edge of a woodland was a single white form of Fragrant Orchid and as we ventured into the trees we came across Lesser Butterfly Orchids and Common Twayblades. These were not the only wonders. There were One Flowered Wintergreens, dainty flowers only a few inches high and white with six petals around a thick green stamen that leads to its other common name in Northern Europe, St. Olaf’s Candle. There were Bird’s Nest Orchids, Lady Orchids, Sword-leaved Helleborine and Lady’s Slipper Orchids under the pine trees too.

A new flower for me was a variation of Common Spotted Orchid (Datylorhiza fuchsii var. rhodochila) which has striking and unusual patterning on the flower.




Nearby we found stunning specimens of Fly Orchid (Ophrys insectifera).




Having enjoyed many more specimens of various Orchids and a patch of Pale Green Wintergreen, we re-grouped at the edge of the wood and I was called over to look at a wonderful Bee Chafer that had been spotted on a Spiked Rampion.




I also found a particularly fine Bird’s Nest Orchid specimen to photograph.




On the return journey I turned to look back at Mont Aiguille and noticed it was doing a rather fine volcano impression with a large cumulonimbus cloud towering over it.




We ambled back for a picnic lunch in the gardens of the hotel before piling into the vehicles for a short excursion up a nearby Col. Within minutes of parking up, we had found more delights. This time Frog Orchids in the verge as well as more Sword Leaved Helleborine and a lovely Burnt Orchid (Orchis ustulata).




I managed a pleasing photo of Clustered Bellflower (Campanula glomerata) there too.




We started walking down a track beside a patch of wet meadow. There were Broad-leaved Marsh Orchids, Brookweed, Broad-leaved Cottongrass and Globeflowers (Trollius europaeus) growing amongst the reeds.




We hadn’t got terribly far when it started raining and steadily got heavier as a thunderstorm set in. We took temporary shelter in a very leaky barn and had an interesting time pushing one of the vehicles out when it got stuck in the mud!

The next morning having hung clothes to dry around our rooms, we set off back up the hill. This time we were headed out further afield, but first we had a couple of roadside stops to look at some more flowery spots where we came across Military Orchids and Narrow-leaved Trumpet Gentians. At the later stop the vegetation was still wet from an earlier downpour and I found a Wood White drying itself out on a grass stem.




Having made it to our main destination for the day we gathered our bags for a walk and within moments there were calls of excitement at the first new species of the area, Elder Flowered Orchids in their yellow form. They were beginning to go over but pretty nonetheless. Just beyond them was a boggy stream where we discovered a whole host of carnivorous Common Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris) in full bloom.




Not far away there were Fairy Foxglove, Mountain Cornflower, Dusky Cranesbill, Star of Bethlehem and Globe Orchids (Traunsteinera globosa).




There were some interesting birds such as Crested Tits and Lesser Whitethroat. We found some fascinating invertebrates too including Gold Spangle Moth, Black and Red Froghopper, Clouded Apollo and Grizzled Skipper. Flashes of orange were almost all we saw of several fritillaries zipping around at great speed, one was eventually identified as a Queen of Spain. I did capture a Dingy Skipper basking in the sun though.




Further up the path we came across more new plants; Chamois Ragwort, Mountain Lungwort, Whorled Solomon’s Seal and Round-leaved Saxifrage (Saxifraga rotundifolia) which has the most beautiful pattern of spots on its tiny petals when seen under a hand lens.




We passed through a small Beech wood where a Bonelli’s Warbler sang loudly among the treetops and followed a small gulley up the hill noting Kernera, Mountain Thrift and Mountain Avens appearing around us. Emerging onto the plateau we were greeted by gorgeous flowery grassland under towering sheer rock faces. A Golden Eagle soared high above and we enjoyed our picnic lunch in the sunshine.

Continuing on up the path I discovered a beautiful clump of St. Bruno’s Lily (Paradisea liliastrum). I singled out a stem for a photograph.




In the grass around us were masses of Fragrant Orchids in great swathes of colour.




Some areas were slightly rockier with shorter growing plants. Here we found Sempervivums, Alpine Aster and Spiked Speedwell among carpets of Alpine Basil Thyme and Common Rockrose (Helianthemum nummularium). A flutter of metallic green caught my eye and I followed it till it settled on a Rockrose flower; it was a Cistus Forester Moth.




We paused to marvel at mud-puddling Small Blues, joined by the occasional Dingy or Grizzled Skipper. There were over 20 in an area about eight inches square!

A little further on, we passed a bank which was blue and yellow with Trumpet Gentians and Elder Flowered Orchids (Dactylorhiza sambucina). It was quite a sight.




There were a handful of wild Tulips and Pheasant’s Eye Narcissus nearby but they were just going over while the Martagon Lilies were still in tight bud.

We soon heard an ominous rumble of thunder and decided it would be best to start our descent before the storm caught up with us. We stopped only briefly on the way down to watch a pair of lizards chasing each other around a tree stump.

On route back towards the hotel we stopped on the roadside where somebody had spotted some Violet Limadore. They weren’t in great condition but it was nice to see them as I hadn’t found them before. There were also Wood Pinks, Red Helleborine and Blue Aphyllanthes there though it wasn’t the best place to stop for too long.

We decided instead to have another look at the Col we had abandoned the day before and found a few things we had previously missed such as Alpine Gypsophila and Slender Broomrape. I and another member of the group decided to walk back to the hotel. It was a pleasant hike, mostly downhill through woodland and alongside some meadows. There were Bonelli’s Warblers singing and Pale Green Wintergreen mingled with Sanicle at our feet. It took about an hour to get back but made for a very pleasant end to the day.

The next morning we set off in the opposite direction and before long we were stopping in another roadside spot, this time to look at some Snapdragons and Bellflowers growing on quite a steep bit of rock face. There were a few other bits and pieces around but being still quite early and damp the best thing in my opinion were the many insects hanging out on the flowers. Two of my favourites were these; what I think (with a little help from @RyanClarkNature) is a Figwort Sawfly and a Mirid bug on Ox-Eye Daisies.






Moving on to our intended destination for the day we drove to the end of a fairly rough track and parked up next to a wonderful meadow full of lovely plants like Yellow Rattle, Meadow Clary, Common Spotted Orchids and Field Scabious. The path continued uphill, bordered by trees in places and opening out to pretty vistas in others. There were Alpine Swifts overheard chittering to one another and butterflies joining a general hum of insects around us.

One of the first plants I noticed was Herb Paris, a strange green flower emerging from a perfectly even rosette of four leaves below. There were Common Bistort and Large Yellow Foxgloves growing among Snowy Woodrush too.

In a little clearing we came across several butterflies, the first being a Bright-Eyed Ringlet which was warming itself on a leaf in the sun.




Another clearing yielded a Rose Chafer eating pollen on a Hoary Plaintain flower.




On a nearby umbellifer I found a stunning Chequered Skipper resting for a moment.




There were soon calls of excitement as Coralroot Orchids had been found. This was another species which I hadn’t seen before so I was very pleased. They are absolutely tiny with green flowers. In fact we saw a great many more over the course of the day. They favour shaded areas under Beech trees and here they shared the woodland with May Lily, Bird’s Nest Orchids, Lily of the Valley and Lady’s Slippers (Cyprepedium calceolus).




Every now and then we would come across great clumps of them looking resplendent in the sunshine. I have found these in Austria before now but never seen them in such numbers, it really was special.




We stopped for lunch in a lovely clearing and spent much of the time watching a group of Chamois way up on the mountainside opposite. There were four adults and a very lively (and fluffy) kid which was pronking along the steep mountainside while the adults were grazing.

On the way back down the hill I came across an interesting if slightly revolting sight to some: A trio of huge Roman Snails getting friendly in the middle of the track!




Just as we neared the vehicles again the heavens opened and we swiftly moved on to another area in an attempt to escape the rain.

It worked and we found several lovely flowers too including Lizard Orchid, Man Orchid and Bee Orchid beside the road. Further on we parked up again and took a short walk up a track. I found another obliging Wood White drying out after an earlier shower.




The main purpose of our stop here though was to look for Late Spider Orchids. Needless to say we found them.




By now we were only a couple of miles from our hotel again and so, while some elected to return and dry off again, there were a handful of us who remained and continued the hunt for other lovely flowers. We found Fly Orchids, spectacular Red Helleborines, Lady Orchids, Dark Red Helleborines in bud and slightly better specimens of Violet Limadore.




There were also masses of Fragrant and Common Spotted Orchids (including several in white form) as well as a few Man Orchids which still had good colouring.




To end the day I found a lovely little Lime Longhorn Beetle on a stem of Yellow Rattle.




The following morning we moved to a new hotel in another part of the Alps, but as I’ve already included quite enough pictures this time, I’ll tell you more about that next week!